Latest Reviews
Friday
Jun062014

The Fault in Our Stars

It’s easy to roll your eyes when a film’s central theme is cancer. While such an affliction is inarguably sad, its handling in the movies is typically heavy-handed. The natural drama from the disease never seems to be enough for some filmmakers, who use manipulative tactics in a lame attempt to get the audience to cry, likely to hide the fact that their movie just simply isn’t very good. A good example of such a film is 2002’s Nicholas Sparks schlock-fest, “A Walk to Remember.” But whereas that film got nearly everything wrong, “The Fault in Our Stars” gets nearly everything right. Despite a moment or two of phony dramatics, this is an achingly real movie, one that explores the struggles of trying to live an everyday life with cancer and forming relationships that others take for granted. If the audience at my screening is any indication, both tears of joy and immense sadness will be shed by most who watch. Rarely have I ever had to fight so hard to hold back from sobbing uncontrollably in a theater as I did with “The Fault in Our Stars.”

Based on the 2012 book by John Green, the film follows Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a teenage cancer patient who hauls around a portable oxygen tank wherever she goes so she can breathe. At the behest of her mother (Laura Dern), she attends a support group for young cancer patients where she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a cancer survivor who has been in remission for some time, despite having to lose a leg to get to that point. She immediately finds him charming and he, unintimidated by the breathing apparatus she’s forced to use, thinks she’s beautiful. They strike up a friendship, which quickly evolves into something more.

The story is told from Hazel’s point of view and she lets us know through some early narration that what we’re about to see isn’t always going to be pleasant. She says she enjoys a fairy tale Hollywood romance just as much as the next person, but life with cancer isn’t that simple, apologizing at the end for the potential sadness we’re about to feel. You see, Hazel isn’t an entirely happy person, and why should she be? She’s suffering from a debilitating sickness that is likely to take her life sooner rather than later and every moment leading up to that inevitable conclusion is going to be filled with hardship and pain. When she finally speaks up in that aforementioned support group, she doesn’t offer words of encouragement as her fellow teenage cancer patients do; she instead comments on how everyone is going to die, that there was a time before humans and that there will be a time after and nobody will be around to remember anyone else. Essentially, life is meaningless, a stark contrast to the religious setting surrounding her.

But Gus changes her. It may go without saying, but she finally starts living. She starts getting excited about the future, despite the knowledge of her impending death in the back of her mind. Before meeting Gus, the only relationships she had were with her parents and doctors, but he opens doors she never thought she’d get to pass through. In her mind, she’s an undesirable, a sickly girl forced to breathe through a tube in her nose, but Gus sees her real beauty. Gus, being the selfless person he is, uses his still redeemable “final wish” to make her happy, taking Hazel and her mother to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author (since she wasted hers on Disneyland at age 13, “a terrible wish,” he says). Gus, as portrayed by relative newcomer Ansel Elgort, is charismatic, funny, optimistic and all around likable. Coupled with the radiant Woodley, they make one of the best onscreen couples in recent memory.

It’s their talent and chemistry that makes the movie as good as it is. It’s not perfect, however, and hits a lull when they finally meet up with that author, played by Willem Dafoe. He’s such a cruel, overly standoffish character that the drama that emerges from their interaction feels forced. Although his character serves a purpose later in the movie, the way his initial introduction is handled is sloppy and over-the-top. Every movie needs a good conflict—that’s storytelling 101—but the presence of cancer and all of its complications is enough here, these scenes merely an unnecessary detour in an otherwise smooth ride.

“Depression isn’t a side effect of cancer; it’s a side effect of dying,” Hazel says cynically in the beginning narration. It’s an interesting quote, but after meeting Gus, she comes to realize that she was wrong because even on their worst days, the two felt an unexplainable happiness they had never felt before. All that mattered was that they were together and, with the knowledge that tomorrow, in a very real sense, may not come, they needed to make each moment count. Nearly every scene has something to love and every moment Gus and Hazel spend together is special because you, just like them, don’t know how long it’s going to last. The movie is an excellent reminder that we should cherish our time on Earth and be thankful for the relationships we have because nothing lasts forever.

It may not be a big budget action blockbuster, but the tremendously powerful “The Fault in Our Stars” is nevertheless one of the summer’s best.

The Fault in Our Stars receives 4.5/5

Thursday
Jun052014

Edge of Tomorrow

Last year’s “Oblivion” was one of the most underrated movies of the year and one of the most thought provoking science fiction movies in some time. While most science fiction films these days rely on explosive action (“Transformers”) or pseudo-philosophy (“Transcendence”), “Oblivion” had something interesting to say. Although it relied on some narrative genre tropes, it used those tropes to explore its themes in interesting ways. Tom Cruise’s newest science fiction film, “Edge of Tomorrow,” is the exact opposite. It has a cool story with some neat ideas, but the narrative doesn’t have any meaningful thematic context behind it. It’s still a stylish and entertaining movie, but it’s missing much of what makes the science fiction genre so interesting.

Cruise plays Major Cage, a media relations expert working for the military during the war against the Mimics, an alien race that arrived in Europe a few years back via meteor. Over the years, they have advanced across the continent and, with human resistance having little success, show no signs of stopping. Cage, despite not being a solider, is ordered onto the front line during an upcoming battle, one that could have devastating consequences for the human race if lost. While out there, he kills an “alpha,” one of the alien race’s leaders. Shortly after, he too perishes, but mysteriously wakes up in the previous day and finds himself reliving it all over again. Only one person knows what he’s going through, the Angel of Verdun herself, Rita (Emily Blunt), and with his help, she plans on stopping the Mimic invasion once and for all.

“Edge of Tomorrow” starts out on a low note. It introduces its story in a silly manner, complete with corny jokes that nearly all land with a thud and its characters come off as clichés, particularly Master Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton), who spouts off about the glories of war in a typical Southern accent. It even manages to treat the horrors of war and the sadness of death with a (perhaps unintended) humorous tone that makes you wonder just what in the world the filmmakers were thinking. When one soldier screams in joy at finally being on the battlefield, only to immediately get crushed by a crashing drop ship, there’s no other reaction to have but to laugh.

When the film does treat its characters like actual human beings and tries to wring some real emotion out of what they’re going through, it hardly resonates due to the nature of the story. The most glaring example comes when Rita dies in Cage’s arms, only for the day to be reset as Cage dies immediately after. Because of this, much of the action, which is already hard to watch due to excessive shaky cam, far too tight camera angles and quick movements of the aliens, has no real tension. Nothing is really at stake. We know that when they die, they will simply revert back to the previous day with superior knowledge that will allow them to not make the same mistake next time. With no real danger, there’s little to invest in.

“Edge of Tomorrow” still has a pretty neat story, even if it is just “Groundhog Day” with aliens, and its central character is interesting because he uses brain over brawn; he doesn’t find victory because he’s a battle hardened killing machine, but rather because he’s able to memorize and adapt to the aliens’ attacks through trial and error, that is until the last act at least, which abandons this different approach and transitions Cage into yet another indestructible action hero. But science fiction is interesting not simply because of its story or its characters, but rather from the way it uses them to tap into some deeper meaning. “Edge of Tomorrow,” while admittedly entertaining, is too thematically thin to be much more than a mild diversion.

Edge of Tomorrow receives 2.5/5

Friday
May302014

A Million Ways to Die in the West

There’s a moment in Seth MacFarlane’s previous film, “Ted,” where Ted the bear makes a joke, which is then told again by another character in a slightly different way. Ted then remarks in a condescending manner that the character did nothing more but repackage his own joke and deliver it again. It was an ironic moment because MacFarlane, for all of his perceived edginess, has been doing that for years. Despite a setting that, in a more flexible comedian’s hands, should prevent the same old gags from reoccurring, his latest, “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” manages to include more of the redundant, played out humor he’s known for in a shoddy looking movie with a poor story and jokes that are intended to shock or offend rather than amuse. While I’m sure fans will find something to appreciate, I personally found this to be the worst comedy since Adam Sandler’s “Grown Ups 2” and easily one of the worst of the year.

The thin plot follows Albert (MacFarlane), a lowly sheep farmer in 1882 Arizona. His girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), has just broken up with him and he’s lost without her. In an effort to win her back, he befriends a pretty woman named Anna (Charlize Theron), who agrees to pose as his new girlfriend and teach him the skills he needs to impress her. What Albert doesn’t know is that Anna is actually the wife of the most famous outlaw in the West, Clinch (Liam Neeson), and if he finds out what Albert is doing with Anna, he’s a-gonna be lookin’ for revenge.

“A Million Ways to Die in the West” starts promisingly enough. Similar to a film from the heyday of the Western genre, the credits play before the movie starts, complete with a stylized font, while sweeping shots of the majestic Western lands and a musical composition befitting of the genre set the stage for your senses. Unfortunately, any hopes for intelligent genre parody, or even homage, are dashed shortly after, the bulk of the film’s jokes coming from a mindset that believes merely hearing modern phrases and curse words in the context of the old West is somehow funny. When the first joke is meant to instill giggles in the 13 year olds in the audience who still think merely hearing a curse word is funny, you naturally assume “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is likely to put forth a minimum amount of effort.

And such assumptions aren’t only justified; they’re proven to be correct. As the film goes on, it repeatedly sinks to the lowest common denominator, relying once again on the most puerile jokes imaginable. To put things into perspective, a penis joke, gay joke and racist joke all appear within the first minute of Albert’s introduction, and the rest of the film never rises above it. Take, for instance, the recurring jokes about a Christian prostitute “saving” herself for marriage, which aren’t funny the first two or three times, much less the 14th or 15th times when the film still hasn’t let it go by the end of its overly long and exhausting two hour runtime. At one point, a periphery character makes a lousy joke and Albert turns toward the camera and asks why anyone would think what is being said is funny, the irony being that I had been asking myself the same thing the entire movie, as nothing that comes before it (or after) is any better.

If one relief comes from this film, it’s that there isn’t a 9/11 joke, a strange fixation MacFarlane has, what with it appearing in both “Ted” and countless episodes of “Family Guy.” One could argue the exclusion is due to the time period the film is set in, but such is not the case, particularly when he makes references to other films with non-sequiturs that differentiate themselves from MacFarlane’s television endeavors only in that there are no cutaways; they are instead just stumbled upon.

What it all boils down to is that “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is lazy. Its jokes are obvious, like when it unamusingly points out that a single dollar was a lot of money back then, and many of them are in poor taste, like when Albert and Anna go to the “Runaway Slave” shooting booth at the town fair. There are a handful of deserving chuckles, usually when the film actually makes an attempt to parody the times, but those moments are few and far between and certainly aren’t plentiful enough to justify sitting through this bloated and meandering comedic disaster.

A Million Ways to Die in the West receives 0.5/5

Friday
May232014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

The “X-Men” movie franchise has had a bumpy ride. It started off strong, but then stumbled with “X-Men: The Last Stand” in 2006 before hitting its lowest point with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in 2009. It has been on a steady upward swing ever since and once again found its footing with 2011’s “X-Men: First Class.” But the newest film, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” is on a whole other level. This is easily the best “X-Men” movie to date, a wildly entertaining, perfectly acted, visually stunning comic book movie that reaches levels few other comic book movies have. The buzz so far this year has been all about the latest “Captain America,” but after sitting through this, don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering what all the fuss was about.

In the early 70s, a doctor by the name of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) had a grand plan. Due to what he saw as an inherent danger to the human species by mutants, he proposed the creation of robots called sentinels that could sniff out mutants and exterminate them. The plan was initially turned down, but after his death by the hands of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the government moved forward with it by utilizing Mystique’s DNA, which allowed these sentinels to adapt to the powers being used against them. Now, nearly all mutants, as well as regular humans who have the dormant mutant gene in them, have been wiped out. Only a select few remain, including Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). One of the remaining mutants, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), has the ability to transport someone’s consciousness to the past, allowing them to alter history to their liking. The process can be damaging to one’s brain the further back in time one goes, but luckily, Wolverine has regenerative abilities and volunteers to take up the task. With time running out, he is transported back to 1973 to try to convince the younger Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X (James McAvoy) to help him stop Mystique from killing Trask and, thus, ending the mutant/human war before it begins.

It sounds complicated what with the constant back and forth and jet-setting narrative that jumps from New York City to Moscow to China to Vietnam to Paris to Washington, DC and back again, but it never is. “Days of Future Past” is a brilliantly constructed film, a cohesive whole in every way. Not once does it hit a narrative lull or forget to follow up on side stories. It takes dozens of characters, from both the past and present, and juggles them all flawlessly, with characters disappearing only after their narrative usefulness has concluded. No single character is included as fan service, but rather because they are necessary to tell the story at hand.

The beauty of it is that “Days of Future Past” never sacrifices story for spectacle. Everything that makes the X-Men characters great is intact here, including the overall themes of tolerance, acceptance and doing right to others despite the wrong they may do to you. In today’s world of rampant homophobia and other forms of bigotry, the X-Men have never been more relevant and “Days of Future Past” benefits from a setting where such bigotry was more commonplace and where America had just been on the losing end of an unpopular war. Because of the latter, the call to war against the mutants seems less like a necessity than it does a need to retain political legitimacy, to show the people of America that the country is still powerful. Despite its historical setting, the film works today by highlighting increased political tension that leads to unrest, a tension that exists today and seems to only be getting worse.

Even if you took away the terrific story and thought provoking themes, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” would be a mesmerizing film, thanks to some of the most mind-blowing superhero action ever put to screen. In particular, one scene focusing on Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is guaranteed to be one of the best, most exciting and funniest moments you’ll see all year. From the moment the film begins, a high bar is set with its action, but instead of dropping off until the slam-bang finale as many films do, it actually gets better as it goes on. Aside from some needless 3D effects, the visuals are astounding and really bring these scenes, and the overall world, to life. Director Bryan Singer, coming off of a two film slump with “Valkyrie” and “Jack and the Giant Slayer,” has never been better. The things he manages to pull off and the control he shows over what would in lesser hands be a cluttered mess makes this his single most impressive endeavor to date.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” is a special movie. Even those who are finding themselves diagnosed with superhero fatigue after the onslaught of films we’ve been given over the last few years will find their interest reinvigorated after this. Singer does with this what Joss Whedon tried to do with “The Avengers,” but failed: he skillfully juggles each character, giving each important player just enough screen time to make them narratively relevant, and creates a meaningful story amidst the insane action. You could even argue that whereas each of the Avengers were primarily off doing their own things in that film (Iron Man flying around the buildings, Thor fighting his brother on top of one, Captain America fighting baddies on the ground, etc.), the X-Men use their powers in tandem, as a singular group fighting a common enemy, not as multiple heroes spread across a large area, which gives them more of a dynamic in the otherwise hectic action scenes.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” sets a new standard for superhero movies. It reaches about as close to perfection as is possible and is guaranteed to be one of the best of the year. X-Men fan or not, you’re going to want to see this one.

X-Men: Days of Future Past receives 5/5

Thursday
May222014

Blended

It’s easy to understand if some cinemagoers have given up on Adam Sandler. Despite some solid performances in movies like “Reign Over Me” and “Punch-Drunk Love” and a few (arguably) funny early films, he has, at this point, fallen off the wagon. With a five film run (excluding animated voice work) of “Grown Ups,” “Just Go With It,” “Jack and Jill,” “That’s My Boy” and “Grown Ups 2,” only “Just Go With It” managed to be even remotely watchable, while “Grown Ups 2” can easily be labeled with no hyperbole as one of the absolute worst comedies ever made. However, it doesn’t appear he’s totally lost, as evidenced by his latest, “Blended.” While a positive reception to it could very well be due to the disastrously low expectations Sandler has set for his movies over the last few years, there’s a certain warmth to it that makes it more than the sum of its parts.

In his third outing with Drew Barrymore, Sandler plays Jim, a manager at a local Dick’s Sporting Goods store who has a terrible first date with Lauren, played by Barrymore. Neither are interested in the other, so they part ways expecting to never see each other again. However, a chance circumstance lands them both at an African resort where they are booked to participate in a number of couples events. Along with them are Lauren’s two boys, one a reckless danger to himself and the other just discovering his sexuality, and Jim’s three girls, the oldest of which is developing a crush for the first time, terrifying Jim. However, their attraction grows while on the vacation and they each develop bonds with the other’s kids, which leads them somewhere unexpected.

“Blended” has a leg up when compared to Sandler’s recent filmography. Whereas films like “Grown Ups” and its sequel didn’t even bother with a story, this film’s ideas and themes center around its story. Sure, it’s predictable, but there’s heart to it and its family value themes come naturally rather than forced like in “Jack and Jill.” Similarly, the kids aren’t just throwaway figures like they have been in previous movies. They’re integral to the film’s meaning. Each of Jim’s children misses their mother, who died of cancer, and they each have their own ways of coping. The middle child, for instance, likes to pretend that her mom is still there, an invisible force that she speaks to and saves a spot at the dinner table for. Jim, who also misses their mother more than anything in the world, goes along with it, understanding the pain his daughter feels.

Both Jim and Lauren, the latter of whom is dealing with the resentment from her children for leaving their deadbeat father, have the best intentions and are trying to make the most out of a life that hasn’t quite gone as they planned. They’re both flawed, particularly Jim, who dresses his girls up in boyish clothes and styles their hair in the female equivalent of a bowl cut, but they’re doing their best, both clearly out of their comfort zones when they have to deal with issues that their spouses would have traditionally handled, like when Lauren finds a hidden centerfold under her son’s bed or when Jim’s oldest daughter hits that time of the month.

They say the quickest way to someone’s heart is through their kids, so it comes as no surprise that it’s they who end up sparking the attraction between Jim and Lauren while in Africa. Each help the other in various ways and as more layers of Jim and Lauren are revealed, their desire to spend more time with each other grows. These moments are genuine too. At first, some of the jabs they take at each other are a little mean spirited, but more often than not, they’re nothing more than playful pokes, the type of innocent jokes any loving couple shares with each other.

On top of all that, “Blended” is actually pretty funny, surprisingly so after Sandler’s last few abominations. Granted, likable characters make for a more pleasant and humorous experience, but some of the jokes are genuinely clever, like when it upends the post-makeover slow-mo entrance scene made popular by romantic comedies in the 80s and 90s with transitioning music based on the reactions of those looking on, including Jim’s horrified expression as he realizes his little girl will now be an object of desire for the boys around her. It even nails the awkwardness of first dates; those who have ever been on a bad one will get to see the old “planned emergency phone call” escape we’ve all wanted to try, but never had the guts to.

With all that said, “Blended” is still not a great movie. It has just as many jokes that land with a thud as it does that actually work and some late movie dramatics pile on the cheese, despite previous false set-ups that could have circumvented it. “Blended” stumbles a ton, that’s for sure, but when it’s at its best, it finds real meaning. It’s touching and doesn’t feel exhausting despite its nearly two hour runtime, which includes a recurring bit from Terry Crews where he shows up in the most random places to sing, a bit that should get old, but, oddly, never does. This is a major step up for Sandler after his previous debacles. Let’s hope he continues this upward swing and realizes his potential because I’m not sure I could suffer through a “Grown Ups 3.”

Blended receives 3.5/5